Ali Noorani: Trump restrictions on asylum seekers are wrong way to cut migrant flow

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Desperate immigrants seeking asylum to escape persecution in their home countries are now largely barred from legally entering the U.S. from Mexico, under a new Trump administration rule that went into effect Tuesday.

Already facing a legal challenge in court, the new rule represents a sweeping – and unwarranted – change to America’s immigration system.

Under the rule, migrants from countries other than Mexico are now barred from crossing our southern border to seek asylum in the U.S. Instead, they will need to seek asylum in one of the nations they traveled through on their way to America. For example, migrants from Guatemala will be required to seek asylum in Mexico – not the U.S.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ANNOUNCES MAJOR CRACKDOWN ON ASYLUM SEEKERS

This may sound like a reasonable idea in a vacuum, but it’s not a good idea in reality.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying everyone who seeks asylum in the U.S. should automatically get it. When the claims of asylum seekers are without merit, our government should deny asylum.

But the new rule bars almost all non-Mexican asylum seekers from even entering the U.S. to plead their case. It adds several layers of bricks to the Trump administration’s virtual wall against legal immigration.

It’s critically important to realize that asylum seekers are not violating U.S. immigration laws.

Our laws and international law – not just our values – call for us to admit people with a well-founded fear of persecution and then consider their asylum requests.

People from other countries who request asylum in the U.S. already endure a rigorous process. It includes numerous background checks and screenings, which can take anywhere between six months and three years.

Some 65 percent of asylum requests were denied in 2018, but the other 35 percent were approved. Under the new Trump administration rule, those 35 percent will suffer.

Suppose seven adjacent apartment buildings on a block are on fire. When a family runs out of one building to escape the flames, firefighters battling the blaze don’t force the family into the burning building next door. They direct the family members to go to a different area where they will be safe.

The U.S. has a “safe third country” agreement with Canada, allowing our immigration authorities to return migrants who attempt to cross the northern border without having applied for asylum in Canada. That system works well.

But the new Trump administration rule requires migrants to seek asylum in countries with which the U.S. has not signed “safe third country” agreements. Why don’t these countries have such agreements? Because they are not safe and don’t have a robust asylum process in place.

Mexico and Guatemala rank among the most dangerous nations in the world. So telling a family fleeing persecution in Honduras to seek asylum in Guatemala or Mexico could result in them still being exposed to dangerous persecution in those two nations.

Look at it this way: Suppose seven adjacent apartment buildings on a block are on fire. When a family runs out of one building to escape the flames, firefighters battling the blaze don’t force the family into the burning building next door. They direct the family members to go to a different area where they will be safe.

The new Trump policy is not the right solution to the challenge of so many asylum seekers crowding into the U.S. on our southern border, which has contributed to terribly overcrowded conditions in our detention facilities and policies that force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico.

There is a better solution. And the right thing and the smart thing are not at odds here.

Should they so choose, Congress and the president could implement an asylum policy that helps alleviate the crises on the border, reaffirms our commitment to compassion and human dignity, and keeps us safe.

In the near term, that means implementing strategies such as public information campaigns in other countries to dispel misinformation from smugglers and help migrants understand who may be eligible for asylum.

Other legal migration options – such as processing of asylum claims in other nations – would permit potential asylum seekers to apply for relief in their home countries before undertaking a dangerous journey north.

And we should partner with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) to counter human smuggling operations and increase intelligence cooperation.

Over the long term, we should help Mexico address gang and drug violence and improve its refugee and asylum systems so it can take in more asylum seekers safely.

We also must address the underlying factors leading Central Americans to leave their home countries. Rather than cutting off aid – as President Trump has done – we should increase aid to the Northern Triangle countries, sending them advisers, food and technical assistance to help improve living conditions for their people.

Reducing crime, poverty, unemployment and other harsh conditions facing people south of our border will reduce the desire of those people to leave their homes and travel to the U.S. Ultimately, such action would be far more strategic than dealing with hundreds of thousands of migrants crossing into our country from Mexico.

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The Talmud, an ancient book of Jewish religious law, says that whoever saves a life saves the world. For the United States, offering asylum is an opportunity to do that.

To turn away from this responsibility jeopardizes the lives and futures of those seeking our shelter and jeopardizes our own moral standing in the world.

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